and Strategic Thought
STEVEN R. MANN
A revolution that can change strategic thought is underway. The bitter-
sweet truth is that this revolution has little to do with the “new world
order” set to follow the end of the Cold War and the success of Desert Storm.
The true revolution is in science, and its effects may change the pattern of
both warfare and strategic thought. Yet our attention is fixed on short term
international reshuffling. Absorbed by the transitory, we ignore the epochal.
Scientific advances are pushing us beyond simple Newtonian con-
cepts and into the exotica of chaos theory and self-organized criticality. These
novel lines of scientific inquiry have emerged only in the past three decades.
In brief, they postulate that structure and stability lie buried within apparently
random, nonlinear processes. Since scientific revolutions have so transformed
conflict in the past, it is essential for US strategists to understand the changes
in progress. One reason why this is important is technological: new principles
yield new classes of weapons, just as basic quantum theory and special
relativity ushered in nuclear devices.
A second and more fundamental reason for understanding scientific
change is that our view of reality rests on scientific paradigms. The world
often appears to us as an intricate, disordered place, and we search for
frameworks that will make sense of it all. These frameworks derive over-
whelmingly from the physical sciences, as in the 18th-century view that the
motions of the celestial bodies could be compared to the works of a giant
clock. Scientific advances, therefore, offer us new ways of understanding a
given environment, and can suggest innovative solutions to policy dilemmas.
But despite the strategic community’s hunger to grasp the technological
benefits of change, it has been unable to adapt the advances to strategic
thought. 1 This article will therefore touch only lightly on the hardware ben-
efits of scientific change and focus instead on the conceptual aspects.
The strategic community’s resistance to new paradigms is a tribute to
the power of the current framework. The specific paradigm that permeates
contemporary Western thought is best described as the Newtonian worldview.
This paradigm is deterministic, linear, concerned with the predictable interaction
of objects and forces, and oriented toward sequential change. This single world-
view has powerfully influenced all areas of human inquiry. One commentator
succinctly observes: “The other sciences accepted the mechanistic . . . views of
classical physics as the correct description of reality and modeled their theories
accordingly. Whenever psychologists, sociologists, or economists wanted to be
scientific, they naturally turned toward the basic concepts of Newtonian phys-
ics.” 2 As one of the social sciences, military science rests upon these same
assumptions. Precisely speaking, however, it is the specific discipline of me-
chanics — the science of motion and the action of forces on bodies — that has
captured our imaginations.
Why does the worldview of mechanics have such a hold on strategic
thought? Part of the answer lies in the fact that military and political science truly
developed as sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries, coincident with the rise of
classical physics and mathematics. Einstein describes the spirit of the age:
The great achievements of mechanics in all its branches, its striking success in
the development of astronomy, the application of its ideas to problems apparent-
ly different and non-mathematical in character , all these things contributed to
the belief that it is possible to describe all natural phenomena in terms of simple
forces between unalterable objects. 3 [emphasis added]
There are, however, more tangible reasons. In the simplest sense, combat is
mechanics. It is no surprise then that military strategy rests on a mechanistic
framework. Since national strategy often borrows the metaphors of combat —
peace “offensive,” Cold “War,” nation-building “campaign” — it is again no
surprise that national strategy reflects the same bias. Politics is a continuation
of war by linguistic means.
A second reason for the longstanding influence of mechanics is its
accessibility. Prior to this century, physics (to include its subset mechanics)
and chemistry had made relatively greater strides than other branches of
science. Biological sciences were in their infancy until the latter part of the
Mr. Steven R. Mann, a career Foreign Service Officer, is Deputy Chief of
Mission at the US Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His most recent prior assignment
was in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is a 1 973 graduate of Oberlin College
and holds master’s degrees from Cornell University and from Columbia University,
where he was a Fellow of the Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet
Union. He is also a 1991 Distinguished Graduate of the National War College.
1800s, and the advances epitomized by Einstein’s relativity theory still lay in
the future. Newtonian mechanics, by way of contrast, was firmly established
by the end of the 17th century.
Finally, this mechanistic worldview is reassuring, since it postulates a
world of sequential change. It promises strategists that the course of events can
be predicted if the underlying principles have been discovered and if the few
variables involved are known. Unsurprisingly, therefore, modem theorists of
war have drawn heavily and subconsciously on this mechanistic paradigm. On
the level of military strategy, consider Clausewitz: the language of On War
betrays the mechanistic underpinning: friction, mass, centers of gravity, etc. Or
Jomini, who stresses the geometry of combat. Or, to take a modem example,
consider this excerpt from the Defense Department’s national security planning
guidance: “The demise of the Cold War can be likened to a monumental shift
in the tectonic plates, unleashing a host of forces that are irrevocably reshaping
the strategic landscape.” 4
Once this mechanistic worldview gained currency, it never lost its
grip. The resulting stasis is the unrecognized core of so many of our strategic
dilemmas. The essential conservatism of the national security establishment, 5
combined with the understandable need for caution on central issues of war
and peace, has discouraged theoretical innovation. The revolution in strategy
founded on a mechanistic ordering of reality has been frozen in place, and the
provocative doctrines of the last century have become the confining dogmas
of this one.
But is this truly a problem? Conventional wars admittedly have
validated much of Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, and others of that genealogy. The
so-called revolutions in warfare before 1945 have represented only changes on
the mechanistic margin. Motorized warfare, for example, increases the options
of an attacking force but is still amenable to Clausewitzian analysis. Air power
shifts the battle to a true third dimension, but does not invalidate the paradigm.
So too, the increased destructiveness and accuracy of munitions leave war
explicable within the classical framework. On the national strategic level, we
have found it useful to examine the strategic “balance” between East and West,
and to maintain and reform alliances that have their analogues in mechanistic
alignments of centuries past.
But we can only draw uneasy comfort from this: as the world
becomes more complex, traditional theories explain less. The gap between
theory and reality exists on the levels of both military and national strategy.
Militarily, a number of weapons and modes of warfare have been developed
in the past century which fit poorly within classical strategy. New weapons
are comparatively easy to develop but difficult to place within a doctrinal
framework. Biological agents and nuclear weapons are two of the tough cases.
Indeed, the process of battle itself is disordered. Army doctrine now openly
Politics is a continuation of war
by linguistic means
declares: “The high- and mid-intensity battlefields are likely to be chaotic,
intense, and highly destructive. . . . [Operations will rarely maintain a linear
character .” 6
On a grand scale, the increasing complexity of foreign affairs cuts
against the comfortable assumptions of classical strategy. Can we indeed
describe our exquisitely variable international environment in traditional
terms of balance of power, polarity, or a shift of tectonic plates? The mech-
anistic worldview is good but not good enough. The daily headlines bring
inconvenient reminders of how oversimplified these models are.
Not only does classical strategic thought seek to explain conflict in
linear, sequential terms, but it compels us to reduce highly complex situations
down to a few major variables. Traditionally, we see strategic thought as the
interplay of a limited number of factors, principally military, economic, and
political. More sophisticated discussions expand the set to include factors
such as the environment, technological development, and social pressures. Yet
even this list fails to convey the full complexity of international affairs: what
is the place of religion and ideology; where do non-national actors such as
terrorist movements fit; what of supranational actors such as global corpora-
tions; what of the role that personalities and institutions play? Moreover, as
global communication increases, economic interdependence progresses, and
democracy spreads, the number of policy influences grows exponentially. The
accelerating pace of decisionmaking adds to the complexity. The closer we
come to an honest appreciation of the international environment, the more we
must confess that it is nonlinear and frustratingly interactive. This compli-
cates analysis tremendously: “Nonlinearity means that the act of playing the
game has a way of changing the rules .” 7
Our daily experience as policymakers validates this dawning percep-
tion. We bruise against reminders of imperfection and randomness every day.
The classical worldview calls this “friction” and shunts it aside as a complica-
tion of the well-laid plans of policymakers . 8 On reflection, though, it becomes
clear that “friction” is a major determinant in affairs of state, not an appendage.
To keep our strategic paradigms workable, we have taught ourselves to ignore
this. Yet life is too complex to be described or explained by the interaction of a
few simple variables.
We need to change the way we think about strategy. This is an
uncomfortable task. Strategic thought of the past few centuries does not appear
to allow much room for innovation. As we have shown, however, our strategic
frameworks are based on the mechanistic assumptions of classical physics. If
we start with different assumptions, by incorporating different scientific para-
digms, we may see more productive strategic principles emerge. A shift in
framework is not a panacea — war and diplomacy will remain as demanding and
dangerous as ever — but if we wish to pull ourselves out of the current analytical
stagnation , 9 we must recognize the assumptions that permeate our strategic
culture and open ourselves to new frameworks . 10
The Discipline of Chaos
The new science of chaos, lying on the uneasy border between
mathematics and physics, is defined by certain key principles:
• Chaos theory applies to dynamical 11 systems — systems with very
large numbers of shifting component parts;
• Within these systems, nonperiodic order exists; seemingly random
collections of data can yield orderly yet nonrecurrent patterns;
• Such “chaotic” systems exhibit sensitive dependence upon initial
conditions; a slight change in any one of the initial inputs leads to dispropor-
tionately divergent outcomes.
• The fact that order exists suggests that patterns can be predicted
in at least weakly chaotic systems.
The earth in revolution around the sun is nonchaotic. A slight change
in orbital speed would yield only a slight change in its path of revolution. In
contrast, a column of smoke rising into the atmosphere is chaotic. It rises
straight up for a time, then suddenly breaks into a turbulent medley of whorls,
twists, and zigzags. These loops seem to follow no particular order, yet
mathematical modeling discloses regular patterns when tracked . 12 A slight
change in velocity of the smoke stream will form a completely different
grouping of whorls and streams — yet this second smoke stream will also yield
mathematically regular patterns.
“Chaos” is an unfortunate shorthand for this discipline. The word
carries associations of formlessness and pure randomness that complicate the
conceptual task. “Nonlinear dynamics” is a less loaded, more descriptive term,
but chaos is the widespread scientific label, so chaos it will be in this article.
The chaos paradigm does not contradict the classical paradigm. In fact,
chaos theory stems from classical physics and mathematics — but it transcends
it. The classical framework describes linear behavior of individual objects;
chaos theory describes statistical trends of very many interacting objects.
What are the implications of this science for the strategist? There are
important implications on at least two levels. On the tangible level, technologi-
cal innovations that exploit chaos theory will change the hardware of war. On
the theoretical level, it offers up a new foundation of strategic thought.
In hardware terms, chaos theory will have path-breaking effects on
military affairs through changes in the way we use technology now, as well
as through development of new types of weapons. Information theory, artifi-
cial intelligence, and the military technologies based on these sciences will
be transformed. One researcher postulates that chaotic changeability “is the
very property that makes perception possible.” 13 At the very least, robotics
will see major strides, and chaos theory may bring us closer to employment
of armed robots in combat. The list of applications has no limit: epidemiologic
spread, meteorology, aeronautic design, and cryptology come easily to mind.
Nuclear targeting may become more accurate, given chaos theory’s ability to
model fluid turbulence. Post-nuclear ecology is a topic also well adapted to
nonlinear analysis, and future discussions of nuclear winter will have to
encompass chaotic principles. Cryptology is an especially tantalizing case,
since chaos theory poses the possibility that what we believe to be random
may not always be truly random.
Technology aside, chaos theory has certain other battle-related ap-
plications. Researchers have sought for decades to make sense out of the many
factors which comprise the chaos of battle. One analyst, Trevor Dupuy, has
developed an elephantine mathematical model which attempts to analyze
battles through the interplay of several dozen variables. This Quantified
Judgment Analysis Model aims to compare “the relative combat effectiveness
of two opposing forces in historical combat, by determining the influence of
environmental and operational variables upon the force strengths of the two
opponents.” 14 Although the focus of the model is historical, Dupuy suggests
that it may be predictive. If so, the implications are tantalizing: commanders
would be able to quantify their chances of battlefield success and systemati-
cally identify areas of weakness. Leaving aside the problem of subjectivity, a
basic flaw is that the model is linear, yet the process of battle itself is
manifestly nonlinear and irregular. Chaos theory may uniquely be able to take
Dupuy’s concept to its ambitious end.
On a theoretical level, we see a dismaying number of Ph.D.s attempt-
ing to understand patterns of wars in history. In 1972, J. David Singer and
associates claimed to find regularity in peaks of global violence over a
150-year period — “A rather strong periodicity emerges, with the dominant
peaks about 20 years apart” — as well as a peak in war beginnings in April and
October. 15 The goal of the Singer research was to use the periodicity as a clue
to factors which give rise to the violence. Other authors have linked patterns
of conflict with “long cycles of world leadership” (Modelski), polarity-
stability models (Waltz), and with the Kondratieff wave cycle of economic
prosperity and depression (numerous authors). 16 As with the Dupuy model,
chaos theory may be the tool that transforms these subjective undertakings
from parlor games to predictive models. Chaos researchers have already
found unexpected identical patterns in social phenomena as disparate as
cotton price levels and US national income distribution. This attribute of
universality — the principle that different nonlinear systems have inherently
identical structures — is a central principle of chaos theory . 17
There remains much research to be done on the applicability of chaos
theory to operational and tactical analysis. On one hand, the process of battle is
universally acknowledged as disordered and thus amenable to nonlinear analy-
sis . 18 On the other hand, combat involves only a small number of actors as we
define them, generally one force versus a second; thus theater-level combat
arguably falls outside of chaos theory, which describes the behavior of very
large numbers of actors. Moreover, commanders exert great effort to make
armed forces act and interact in linear, mechanistic, predictable ways. Devices
such as rank hierarchies, military discipline, unit structure, warrior tradition,
and structured operation orders serve to impose order and overcome random
behavior. This further limits the dynamism of the system and suggests that chaos
theory may have only limited applicability on the level of military strategy. Is
battle truly chaotic or not? There are two useful answers to the question. One
is to view the process of battle as fundamentally chaotic, but moderated to an
orderly system with varying degrees of success as described above. A second
possibility is to consider the process of battle as fundamentally linear and
nonchaotic, and assert that it is our individual perceptions of battle which are
disorderly. In any case, these questions will bear more inquiry.
The Critical Threshold
The true value of chaos theory is to be found on a higher plane, in
the domain of national strategy. Chaos should change the way we view the
full set of human interactions, of which war is only one special part. The
international environment is an exquisite example of a chaotic system. An
intriguing offshoot of chaos theory — “self-organized criticality” — is perfect-
ly matched to such an analysis. Bak and Chen here define self-organized
Large interactive systems perpetually organize themselves to a critical state in
which a minor event starts a chain reaction that can lead to a catastrophe. . . .
Although composite systems produce more minor events than catastrophes,
chain reactions of all sizes are an integral part of the dynamics Furthermore,
composite systems never reach equilibrium but instead evolve from one meta-
stable [i.e. temporarily stable] state to the next . 19
IBM researchers are examining this theory using sandpiles: grains of sand are
added one by one to a pile until a critical state is reached in which the next
The international environment is an exquisite
example of a chaotic system .
grain of sand added produces an avalanche. After that catastrophic reordering,
the system is relatively stable as it builds toward the next reordering.
Interestingly, a number of metaphors already exist in political science
which hint at criticality. The picture of international crises as a “tinderbox” is
the most well-known one. In one respect, this metaphor remains particularly
accurate: the development and spread of a forest fire is a useful example of a
chaotic system and has been modeled by Bak, Chen, and Tang . 20 The tinderbox
idea, however — an explosive object waiting for a match — falls short in convey-
ing the dynamical nature of world affairs. A newer metaphor is the concept of
“ripeness,” as described by Haass and others. This view of international negotia-
tion holds that some disputes are insoluble for a variety of reasons until the time
arrives when they are “ripe.” The key to successful negotiation, therefore, lies
in recognizing and then exploiting this critical state. 2 '
What framework better describes the reordering that is now taking
place in the world than self-organized criticality? The “plate tectonics” meta-
phor, based on the classical framework, fails. It postulates basic stability, broken
by realignment of a few major forces. The full complexity of the situation is left
to the imagination of the reader. The last years of the Soviet Union present a
useful case study. The classical framework encouraged us to think in simple
terms of a clash of forces: Yeltsinian populists, Gorbachevian reformers, and
conservatives. The classical framework contains a bias toward stability and
status quo, since only under relatively calm conditions are classical strategic
and diplomatic principles workable. Thus we saw the repeated warnings against
“Soviet chaos” by timid diplomatists and cautious politicians. The traditional
view considered the breakup of the USSR as the beginning of the slide into
disaster and argued for cohesion and a strong center. Self-organized criticality,
in contrast, leads us to see a tremendous multiplicity of actors in a critical state
that will inevitably progress to one of transient stability after a catastrophic
reordering. No need for stability here in order for the model to be useful:
criticality views “Soviet chaos” as part of an explicable process. Criticality
welcomes the rise of the republics and the downfall of the Union government
as a precondition to a new, productive, metastable arrangement.
On the international stage, the traditional model leads us to overes-
timate our influence on events and discount the ability of all but the major
players to have a decisive impact on events. The paradigms of chaos and
criticality, in contrast, highlight the disproportionate effects seemingly minor
actors can provoke. The German physicist Gerd Eilenberger remarks:
The tiniest deviations at the beginning of a motion can lead to huge differences
at later times — in other words, minuscule causes can produce enormous effects
after a certain time interval. Of course we know from everyday life that this is
occasionally the case; the investigation of dynamical systems has shown us that
this is typical of natural processes. 22
Chaos theory further notes that these deviations are self-organized; that is,
they are generated by the dynamical system itself. Even absent external
shocks, a sufficiently complex system contains the factors that will propel the
system across the boundary of stability and into turbulence and reordering.
Now a troubling question arises: is chaos theory merely a useful
metaphor to describe these interactions, or do these interactions actually
follow the occult laws of chaos? This metaphysical puzzler is beyond the
scope of this modest article; but intuition, the conscience of the intellect,
suggests that the second explanation is correct.
The originators of the concept indeed foresee application in security
affairs: “Throughout history, wars and peaceful interactions might have left
the world in a critical state in which conflicts and social unrest spread like
avalanches.” 23 Consider the example encountered earlier: the end of the Cold
War as compared to a shift of tectonic plates. Which framework gives a more
accurate basis for strategy? The mechanistic framework seems to say that the
plates have now shifted and we are in an indefinite period of stability upon
which we can now rebuild a uniquely new world order. Criticality describes
a dynamical process, precariously stable, which is even now building toward
the next set of catastrophic reorderings.
The mechanistic view is too arbitrary and simple for international
affairs. We must start from the point that disorder, proceeding to reordering, is
an inherent, inescapable feature of complex, interactive systems. We are delud-
ing ourselves if we choose metaphors which suggest that externally-imposed,
long-term stability can be a defining feature of the world. The world is destined
to be chaotic because the multiplicity of human policy actors in the dynamical
system have such widely variant goals and values.
The mechanistic paradigm encourages us to seek the causes of major
change in external factors. It postulates basic inertia in a system, unless acted
upon by some outside force. Criticality, in contrast, is self-organizing. The
system proceeds to major change as a result of a small, almost negligible event.
World War I presents an outstanding example of self-organized criticality. The
killing of an archduke in an obscure Balkan town triggered a worldwide
catastrophe that led to the deaths of 15 million human beings and whose effects
are felt even today.
Lebanon may offer an example of perpetual criticality. Its location
at the center of conflict between nations over the centuries, its tortured
geography, its bitter ethnic, religious, and clan antagonisms, give little hope
for stability and predictability. Working within the classical strategic frame-
work, however, the United States entered the fray in 1982, emplacing Marines
to bring balance to the situation and separate opposing forces. As the Marine
commander remarked: “We walked a razor’s edge.” 24 The basic assumption
was that the United States could be a neutral, stabilizing force. A system in
criticality, however, offers no neutral ground, no hope of permanent stability.
Once in it, you are of it, as we learned after the catastrophe in which 241
Marines lost their lives to a terrorist bomb.
Reordering Strategic Thought
Amid the disorder, we are not bereft of strategy. Criticality theory is
not a limitation for the strategist but a promising framework which helps
explicate the fascinating disorder of the world. Once we arrive at an accurate
description of our environment, we are in a position to create strategies which
advance our interests. To create these strategies, we must begin with an
examination of the factors which shape criticality. Some possibilities:
• Initial shape of the system
• Underlying structure of the system
• Cohesion among the actors
• Conflict energy of the individual actors
Taking these factors one by one:
The initial shape, that is, the contours of a system at the beginning,
influence the system’s later development: the post-catastrophic outcome forms
the basis of subsequent actions. In our sandpile, the post-avalanche slopes and
hills influence the shape of the new cone to be formed; in foreign affairs, the
changed boundaries after World War II could not help shaping the subsequent
course of events.
Again, in sandpile terms, the grains fall onto a flat, circular surface:
this is the underlying structure. This basic structure, or matrix, helps deter-
mine the shape of the developing sandpile. In the international sense, under-
lying structure can be factors such as environment and geography. Kuwait’s
proximity to Iraq is a fundamental fact that shapes all subsequent policy in
that area. Water supply is an example of an environmental underlying factor.
Cohesion determines the rate at which reordering takes place. Wet sand
has different dynamics than dry sand. So too do ideologically and ethnically
homogeneous systems have different dynamics than multiethnic or ideological-
ly various societies. On a military level, deterrence and arms control serve to
increase cohesion among states. Increased cohesion does not prevent criticality;
it means only that the progression to criticality is slowed. Ineffective arrange-
ments create false cohesion — the illusion that reordering is being effectively
managed. The League of Nations covenant to establish global collective security
(1920), the Kellog-Briand pact to renounce war (1928), the Yalta conference to
shape the post-World War II international order (1945), and all such delusional
diplomacy stand as instances of false cohesion.
Finally, each actor in politically critical systems possesses conflict
energy, an active force that instigates change in the status quo, thus contributing
to the formation of the critical state. In our international system, this energy
derives from the motivations, values, and capabilities of the specific actors,
whether governments, political or religious movements, or individuals. These
actors can seek change in the status quo through peaceful or violent means, but
either course inches the state of affairs toward its date with criticality and the
inevitable cataclysmic reordering.
Chaos theory dictates that it is very difficult to make long-range
predictions. The difficulty increases with the number of actors in the system
and the duration of forecast desired. As a starting point, therefore, we should
be suspicious of long-term strategic outlooks. This is a hard addiction to
abandon. We cling to the belief that there are maps that will take us through
the dark woods of international affairs. But perhaps a different metaphor will
help: we should look instead for lanterns with a short beam to illuminate
somewhat a path that shifts with the pace and direction of our stride.
Is this argument not contradicted by the success of our containment
policy, the crown jewel of long-term strategic thinking? This policy, with its
prescription for “unalterable counterforce at every point where [the communist
enemies] show signs of encroaching,” represented the full flowering of the
mechanistic worldview in national security affairs. 25 Conventional wisdom, in
view of the collapse of the Soviet empire, says the policy of containment
worked. But looking at the aggregate record, can we not say this same policy
gave us Vietnam — with its fatally limited aims and insurmountable constraints
on conduct of the war — and also led us into self-defeating support of authori-
tarian regimes from Iran to Nicaragua to the Philippines? Might we not have
achieved a better end result with less cost if we had moved more flexibly
between islands of order within the global sea of political chaos?
Now, having moved beyond containment, we are debating the correct
concept of polarity — whether the world is multipolar, unipolar, or tripolar,
now that it is no longer bipolar. This debate is a another example of how we
work to unsee the obvious. Politically, the world has far too many and varied
actors to be thought of in terms of any polarity. Yet we seek to impose a
metaphor from the mechanistic lexicon to give us a comforting sense that we
truly do understand the new world.
We are desperate in our desire for structure, thus the overblown appeal
of the “new world order,” “strategic consensus,” “peace dividends.” Will par-
tisans of the new world order mimic the mistakes of containment, forcing us to
take unwise policy stands in pursuit of an illusory long-term stability? We may
have already sacrificed more than we know in pursuit of this new stability: by
conditioning Desert Storm on UN approval, we have constrained our future
military options. Much of Congress, the American public, and the international
community will expect a UN imprimatur as a legitimating prerequisite to future
US use of force. Sadly, the attempt to create the new world order through
international legality has left Saddam Hussein defiant, duplicitous, and firmly
entrenched as the decimation of the Kurds proceeds.
Our desire for structure also helps explain the Western thirst for arms
control. Even when the arms control regime is declaratory and has no military
utility, as with the 1972 Biologic and Toxin Weapons Convention, we keep
the faith that the simple, declaratory existence of the treaty will help prevent
the horrors it describes. Americans sanctify the arms control “process” as a
good in itself, regardless of the strategic situation or the virtue of the treaties
Effective treaties and compacts can slow the progress of a system
toward criticality, but we indulge in illusion if we believe absolute stability
is attainable. In international affairs, all stability is transient. The international
environment is a dynamical system composed of actors — nations, religions,
political movements, ecologies — which are in themselves dynamic systems.
We should therefore be wary of incurring immediate policy costs to achieve
a future stability: odds are that we will not get what we bargained for. Indeed,
“stability,” like “presence,” “nation-building,” and even “peace,” is a context-
less goal. When such a goal is advanced as a policy objective, it betrays either
the inadequacy or the duplicity — recall the Soviet family of “peace-loving ”
nations — of the underlying strategy. Stability is no more than a consequence,
and should never be a goal.
How then to use criticality to our advantage? The true aim of national
strategy is shaping the broad context of security affairs, achieving the desired
end state with the mildest upheaval. There are times when we will wish to delay
formation of a critical state; there are times when we will wish to encourage it
and will seek to shape the reordering. As all foreign policy operators know,
shaping events is easier dreamed than done. There is not much we can do about
initial shape or underlying structure. These are the givens of history, geography,
and environment. Our policy efforts must center on achieving cohesion and
mitigating conflict energy. Internationally, such devices as military alliances,
economic agreements, trade protocols (e.g. GATT), and agreed rules of the road
in general build cohesion into the system. But the more promising, but more
neglected way to effect desirable international change lies with the individual.
Conflict energy is at base a human property, since the individual is
the basic building block of global structures. Conflict energy reflects the
goals, perceptions, and values of the individual actor — in sum, the ideological
software with which each of us is programmed. To change the conflict energy
of peoples — to lessen it or direct it in ways favorable to our national security
goals — we need to change the software. As hackers have shown, the most
aggressive way to alter software is with a “virus,” and what is ideology but
another name for a human software virus?
With this ideological virus as our weapon, the United States should
move to the ultimate biological warfare and decide, as its basic national
security strategy, to infect target populations with the ideologies of dem-
ocratic pluralism and respect for individual human rights. With a strong
American commitment, enhanced by advances in communications and in-
creasing ease of global travel, the virus will be self-replicating and will spread
in nicely chaotic ways. Our national security, therefore, will be best assured
if we devote our efforts to winning the minds of countries and cultures that
are at variance with ours. This is the sole way to build a world order that is
of long duration (though, as we have seen, it can never achieve absolute
permanence) and globally beneficial. If we do not achieve this ideological
change throughout the world, we will be left with only sporadic periods of
calm between catastrophic reorderings.
A tangible implication of this analysis is a sharp increase in support
for the United States Information Agency, the National Endowment for
Democracy, and the numerous private-sector exchange and educational
programs. These programs lie at the heart of an aggressive national security
strategy. Conversely, we need to react defensively as well. The true national
security battleground is, metaphorically, viral in nature. On the level of
individual choice, we are under attack by certain destructive strains, notably
drug addiction. What is drug addiction but a destructive behavioral virus
that spreads in epidemic fashion?
The Intuitive Core
The world is open to experience on many levels, and we would be
acting unrealistically if we claimed primacy for any one scientific paradigm
over all of the others as a foundation of strategic thought. Each framework
offers unique insights, and the art of strategy is choosing the most enlighten-
ing one for a given situation. Strategy has traditionally been described as the
iron linkage of ends and means. The complexity of national security today
suggests that such an Iron Age has passed, and we must develop a more
encompassing definition of strategy: not simply a match of means to ends but
a match of paradigm to the particular strategic challenge. It makes little sense
to define ends and select our means until we have achieved an accurate
representation of the reality we encounter.
If we are open to a variety of scientific frameworks, we can generate
more workable principles of strategy than we now possess. On an operational
level, we can anticipate the principles of weapons still to be developed if we
understand the theoretical principles which will give rise to those weapons.
On a higher plane, we can understand the factors which dictate that a complex,
dynamical system such as the USSR will change, and work more precisely to
shape the transformation. We can learn to see chaos and reordering as oppor-
tunities, and not push for stability as an illusory end in itself. All of this awaits
if we can transcend the bonds of the mechanistic framework, which still
dominates strategic thought.
Finally, we must recognize the limits of any framework, even the
counterframework of chaos, and pay proper respect to the irrational, the
intuitive. Strategic thought rests on scientific paradigms, which in turn rest
on mathematics, the language of science. The truths of mathematical systems,
therefore, extend by metaphor into our strategic concepts. However, one
mathematical principle above all is important to us — Godel’s Incompleteness
Theorem: “All consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory include
undecidable propositions.” 26 In our world is an infinite set of problems which
have no logically consistent answer; there are some problems which any
framework alone cannot solve. This theorem marks the limits of robotics in
warfare, the limits of operations research, of scientific inquiry as applied to
warfare or, indeed, to any discipline. We must accept the fact that warfare and
strategy, like all undertakings which seek to describe and predict creative
behavior, will contain unsolvable paradoxes. Nuclear deterrence may be an
example of this: threaten to destroy only to preserve. The poignant quotation
from the time of Tet, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” 27 may
Paradoxically, then, once we have achieved a strategic framework that
is logically consistent and provides a comprehensive, predictive description of
war, we can no longer fully trust that framework. In plain talk from Colin
Powell, we cannot “let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.”
Any framework contains limitations that can be transcended only by
the peculiar characteristics of human intellect, what the physicist Roger
Penrose refers to as “the instantaneous judgments of inspiration” 28 inseparable
from human consciousness. What is that after all, but Clausewitz’s coup
d’oeil : those “glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth.” 29
Great strokes of strategy draw on this intuitive core. Yet strategists
must not live by inspiration alone. Inspiration unsupported by rigorous anal-
ysis becomes adventurism. Thus intuitive gifts must be paired with an effec-
tive theoretical framework. Chaos theory is uniquely suited to provide one
such framework. It can provoke us toward realistic policies in an incessantly
changeable age, and inaugurate the overdue liberation of strategic thought.
The author is indebted to Dr. Nicholas Colella, Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, for scientific review
1. “Strategic community” denotes that irregular web of academics, consultants, and servants of the
taxpayer who propose governmental responses to operational, strategic, and national security issues, thus
defining our strategic culture.
2. Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983), p. 47.
3. Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics (New York: Simon and Schuster,
1942), pp. 57-58.
4. US Department of Defense, 1991 National Security Planning Guidance (Washington: DOD, 1991),
p. 1. This time-honored metaphor can be traced back at least to Joseph Nye’s use in the 1970s.
5. See among others Morris Janowitz, The Professional Soldier (New York: The Free Press, 1971),
6. Field Manual 100-5, Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 5 May 1986), p. 2.
7. James Gleick, Chaos (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 24.
8. See “Oils for the Friction of War,” in Charles M. Westenhoff, ed., Military Air Power (Maxwell
AFB, Ala.: Air Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 77-79. This section of the book is filled with quotations which track
precisely with chaos theory. Indeed, one statement (Eilenberger, cited on p. 16) is attributed to a physicist
researching nonlinear dynamics. The compilers perfectly identify the omnipresence of chaos and non-
linearity in war; all they lack is the vocabulary.
9. Stansfield Turner notes this and poses the question of “why there have been so few prominent
strategic thinkers and writers in the past 50 years.” Turner, “The Formulation of Military Strategy,” in
George E. Thibault, ed.. The Art and Practice of Military Strategy (Washington, D.C.: National Defense
Univ. Press), 1984, p. 15.
10. This article confines itself to chaos theory as a new basis for strategic thought, yet other sciences
may offer equally innovative paradigms for the strategist.
1 1. “Dynamical,” not “dynamic,” is the preferred term among researchers. I follow the convention.
12. The patterns exhibit period-doubling and have analogues in fractal geometry. See Gleick, pp.
13. Walter J. Freeman, “The Physiology of Perception,” Scientific American, February 1991, pp. 78-85.
14. Trevor Dupuy, Numbers, Predictions, and War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1979), p. 50.
15. J. David Singer and Melvin Small, The Wages of War, 1816-1965: A Statistical Handbook (New
York: John Wiley and Sons, 1972), pp. 215, 375.
16. See William R. Thompson, On Global War (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1988).
17. Gleick, pp. 83-87.
18. A possibly apocryphal quotation, ascribed to “a German general officer,” makes this point: “The
reason that the American Army does so well in wartime is that war is chaos, and the American Army
practices chaos on a daily basis.” Source unknown.
19. Per Bak and Kan Chen, “Self-Organized Criticality,” Scientific American, January 1991, p. 46.
Metastable denotes having only a slight margin of stability or only a delicate equilibrium.
20. Ibid., p. 53.
21. See Richard N. Haass, Conflicts Unending (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990).
22. Westenhoff, p. 78.
23. Bak and Chen, p. 53.
24. Colonel T. J. Geraghty, quoted in Daniel P. Bolger, Americans at War 1975-1986: An Era of Violent
Peace (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988), p. 210.
25. The plan of containment was implemented far more rigidly than its architect intended. Kennan, in
retrospect, terms his 1947 article a call for ideological-political engagement, and suggests today that we
need a containment theory “more closely linked to the totality of the problems of Western civilization.”
Chaos theory to the rescue? See George F. Kennan, “Containment Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs , 66
(Spring 1987), 885-90.
26. Paraphrased by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York:
Vintage Books, 1980), p. 17.
27. See Stanley Kamow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984), p. 534.
28. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), p. 422.
29. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton Univ. Press, 1984), p. 102.